Review: ‘Endless Love’ remake is harmless teen romance that misses the point of the book

Both times Scott Spencer’s novel “Endless Love” has been adapted to the bigscreen, there have been fundamental changes made to the source material to such a degree that it’s apparent the filmmakers are uneasy with the book.

Understandable. Spencer’s novel is not a sweet and simple love story by any means. It is a look back at the temporary madness that comes from that first wild love that people often encounter, and what happens when it’s not temporary and it’s not as harmless as people make it out to be. Spencer’s novel is dark, and it both opens with and builds to a fire that is truly catastrophic and tragic. Shana Feste’s film “Endless Love” shares character names and some plot points with the book, but it is telling an entirely different kind of story, one that almost feels like a complete refutation of the points made by the novel.

Feste’s film reconfigures David Axelrod, the main character of the novel, into David Elliot, played here by Alex Pettyfer. David is graduating high school, a blue collar kid who seems to have only two ambitions in life: work in his dad’s auto repair store and find a girl that he can love. He’s pretty sure that girl is Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde), a rich girl who is also graduating, but she spent her entire high school career focused on getting into a great college, and none of her classmates really seem to know her at all.

There’s more to it, of course. The Butterfields lost their oldest son, and he was one of those perfect kids who both Jade and her brother Keith (Rhys Wakefield) have a hard time living up to in the eyes of their demanding father Hugh (Bruce Greenwood, who looks to be having a blast playing Asshole Dad). David finally works up the nerve to get to know Jade, and at first, everything’s great. She sees him as the exact sort of funny free spirit she needs before she leaves to start the long grind of pre-med and medical school, and he sees her as this delicate unicorn who only he can draw out of her dreary life. Theirs is the sort of love that unfolds in montage, with lots of laughter and running in circles and sparklers at night and breathless kissing in the rain.

It can’t be that easy, of course. There’s nothing mellow about this melodrama. Pettyfer’s character supposedly has a dark secret, a violent past, but he is written as such an upstanding, decent, average guy that it never rings true, and the one moment he crosses the line and punches Bruce Greenwood, it’s obvious that Greenwood is asking for it to happen. Pettyfer is such a bland lead that it’s hard to tell if he has more to offer as an actor. If so, we certainly don’t see it here. Gabriella Wilde is very good at playing sweet and open and she seems like a lovely young lady, but she’s written as such a blank here that she’s somewhat stranded. Jade’s never had a chance to be a teenager, so she runs wild with David, until Dad makes her stop, and then she does, but only until David tempts her again. She has no real agency of her own. She is an object of desire, and the real struggle here is between David and her father. Everything goes back to the death of the older brother, and there are also some dark secrets about David, but all of it is simply meant to create obstacles to David getting what he wants or Hugh getting what he wants. What Jade wants is simply how they know who wins.

This version has had all of the rough edges of both character and story sanded off, and Andrew Dunn’s photography bathes the film in a gorgeous hazy perpetual summer. It is well-made and slick, but it feels like the sort of film that exists for a very specific audience, a “grown-up” romance for preteen girls who want to imagine a world where the only thing you have to worry about is that your boyfriend will be too perfect and your dad just won’t get it. I feel bad for Joely Richardson, whose role is written in a way that makes her seem mentally unstable, and poor Robert Patrick is wasted although it’s always good to see him playing a character who isn’t a total creep. Poor Ryhs Wakefield, who you know from “The Purge” as the really really really creepy main guy, is never going to be able to shake that. He’s supposed to be Wilde’s older brother here, a decent guy struggling to deal with his demanding father, but Wakefield was born to play slimy rich kid garbage, and he doesn’t really do anything here that manages to shift that perception.

As silly romantic fluff goes, “Endless Love” seems harmless, and they both seem like sweet kids. If you’re a fan of the novel, don’t even bother, because it will drive you berserk in a totally different way that Franco Zeffirelli’s awful 1981 film did, but if you’re just looking for a painless Valentine’s Day date, it is certainly better than “Winter’s Tale.”

“Endless Love” opens tomorrow.